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Lech-Lecha

Lech-Lecha

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Leaving Home - For Good

The story is told of an encounter between two famous rabbis of yesteryear -- Rabbi Elijah, the famed "Gaon" (prodigious scholar) of Vilna, and Rabbi Yaakov Krantz, known as the "Maggid" (preacher) of Dubne. Apparently the Maggid of Dubne once visited Vilna and went to pay a courtesy call on the great Gaon. The Gaon asked the Maggid to preach to him, as was his specialty. "Give me mussar (words of rebuke). Chastise me," said the Gaon. "G‑d forbid that I should have the chutzpah to chastise the great Gaon of Vilna," replied the Magid, quite horrified at the suggestion. "No matter, that is your forte and I want to hear mussar from you," insisted the Gaon.

So the Dubner Maggid thought a while and then most reluctantly acceded to the wishes of his illustrious host. Said the Maggid, "Is it a great achievement to be a Gaon sitting in Vilna in your little secluded kloiz (small study hall)? Go out into the world, mix with the people, and then let us see what kind of Gaon you will be."

Indeed, it is much easier to be scholarly and pious in a sequestered ghetto than it is outside in a world that is often oblivious, or even hostile, to Torah and its values.

This, in fact, was more or less the test of Abraham in this week's Parshah. "Go from your land, from your birthplace, from your father's house, to the land I will show you." And it was there -- far from his natural environment and comfort zones -- that Abraham accomplished his divine mission. He spread the truth of the One G‑d to a pagan world and, in the process, his own name and reputation was established for eternity. It was only after leaving home that Abraham became the founding father of the Jewish people.

A hundred years ago, an entire generation of Yiddish-speaking, Torah-observant Jews migrated from Europe. They came to America, the golden land of opportunity, to escape pogroms and persecution. With blood, sweat and tears they raised themselves from rags to riches and soon came to personify the American dream -- an amazing and inspiring success story. But the fact is that, for the most part, as their businesses succeeded their religious lives failed. Unquestionably, Judaism took a severe body blow. Most were unable to sustain their old world values in new world America. The transition from shtetl to suburbia proved too formidable and children and grandchildren grew up ignorant of and alienated from their own sacred traditions.

Today, we see this phenomenon playing out on a lesser scale when families emigrate or move from city to city. Displaced from their spiritual support systems, they flounder. The bulk of their efforts are directed at just resettling and reorganizing their lives. Putting religious infrastructures in place often comes last -- at great cost in the long run.

And on a more subtle level, a similar test of conscience faces us when we take our annual vacations. Away from home and our habitual norms of behavior, we are challenged to maintain the code of conduct we are committed to all year long.

It's like the story of the shadchan (matchmaker) who suggested a young lady to a fellow and absolutely raved about her. After their first date, the fellow calls up the shadchan and gives him a piece of his mind. "How dare you introduce me to such a girl, didn't you know she limps!" Quite unflustered, the shadchan retorts, "But, what's the problem, it's only when she walks."

It is when we walk away from our comfortable spiritual cocoons of home and community into the wider society that we may find ourselves limping somewhat, losing our Jewish equilibrium. It is then that our faith, our values, our morals and beliefs are truly challenged.

May G‑d help that the children of Abraham will emulate their forefather, who left his land and remained strong in faith, going on to achieve remarkable success, both spiritually and materially.

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